DMV Commissioner granted exceptions despite staff advice, rulings

Documents show DMV commissioner actions

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Torre Jessup took action on at least four occasions that reversed the recommendation or decision of staff, hearing officers and, in one case, a Superior Court judge, to the benefit of specific individuals.

Information about Jessup’s actions are details in a set of internal DMV documents obtained by WBTV.

In each case, a person sought a certain type of ruling or decision—be it a delay of a suspension, a specific license or a certain type of vehicle title—that DMV staff, hearing officers and, in one case, a Superior Court judge, had already determined the person didn’t qualify for.

In all four cases, Jessup intervened to and reversed the decision.

The four cases involve the following:

-A convicted felon who operates a non-profit in Winston-Salem and Charlotte who had also been cited for multiple DMV violations since getting out of prison who was applied for a automobile dealer’s license and was denied. The case was heard by a DMV hearing officer and, later, a Superior Court judge, both of whom upheld the denial. Jessup intervened and issued the license.

-An inspection station in Kannapolis that was cited for a violation in 2017. Under the regulations, the station was supposed to be suspended for six months and pay a fine. But Jessup instructed staff to not communicate with the inspection station in writing and, later, the DMV approved a new license for the station the same day the original suspension took effect.

-A Greensboro man who was given a one-time exception to brand his car as a ‘street rod’ instead of a replica by Jessup without going through the formal review process.

-A Wadesboro man who was given a one-time exception to license a vehicle he purchased on the Internet that came from Alabama with a salvage title. Jessup allowed the car to be considered roadworthy and get a title over the objections of staff.

For the first time in the more than six months since WBTV has been investigating problems at DMV, Jessup agreed to sit for an interview to answer the station’s questions for this story.

Inspection station license

Carolina Car Care in Kannapolis received a violation for failing to follow proper regulations regarding vehicle inspections in late 2017.

Under the law, a station that is cited for a violation is required to serve a six-month suspension and pay a fine.

Multiple sources with knowledge of DMV operations tell WBTV that the owner of the shop, Michael Parks, worked to stop the suspension from taking effect.

Despite that, staff at DMV prepared a final decision letter for Jessup to sign outlining the terms of the business’ suspension.

Instead of signing the letter, Jessup put a line through the body of the letter and left a handwritten note.

“Please don’t respond to this by letter. The decision will be communicated by other means,” Jessup wrote.

A DMV spokeswoman provided a letter to WBTV that Jessup did sign dated December 4, 2017.

That letter said the business would be suspended effective December 14, 2017.

But internal DMV records obtained by the station show the suspension actually didn’t take effect until February 12, 2018.

On that day, internal records show, Carolina Car Care’s inspection station license was suspended and a new business, Five Star Muffler & Inspection, was issued a license.

Internal records for Five Star Muffler & Inspection show the new business was operating from the same business as Carolina Car Care and also included Michael Parks as a licensee.

State law forbids inspection stations whose licenses are suspended from opening a new business.

“A place of business designated in a station license that has been suspended or revoked cannot be the designated place for any other license applicant during the period of the suspension,” the law says, unless the new licensee has no relation to the person who was previously suspended.

Records produced by DMV in response to our questions show Five Star Muffler & Inspection was opened by Michael Park’s 18-year-old son, Chandler Parks.

Internal records obtained by WBTV show both Michael and Chandler Parks are listed on Five Star Muffler & Inspection’s license.

Despite that, a DMV spokeswoman, Nicole Meister, tried to claim otherwise in an email to WBTV on Friday, after the interview with Jessup.

“You also said that the business was allowed to open under the same licensee. That is also inaccurate,” Meister said.

Meister refused to acknowledge that both Michael Parks and Chandler Parks were listed on Five Star Muffler & Inspection’s license—including withholding the one page of a database that reflected that fact—until the afternoon of the day this story first aired on TV.

On the application submitted by Chandler Parks, he affirms that he has no business partners whose license had previously been suspended or revoked. He also checked “no” to a question about any member of his partnership having been licensed as an inspection station.

The application also says Carolina Car Care was going out of business.

“Old station at this address is going out of business,” the DMV form processing the inspection station license for Five Star Muffler & Inspection said.

Signs for Carolina Car Care and Five Star Muffler & Inspection appear on the building where DMV allowed one station to be suspended and the other to open.
Signs for Carolina Car Care and Five Star Muffler & Inspection appear on the building where DMV allowed one station to be suspended and the other to open. (Source: Corey Schmidt)

Today, a sign for Five Star Muffler & Inspection sits right under the sign for Carolina Car Care on the same building.

The Yelp entry for Carolina Car Care advertises that the business does vehicle inspections.

In his interview, Jessup said he was not involved in the decision to allow Five Star Muffler & Inspection to open, even after WBTV showed him a copy of the letter with his handwritten note instructing staff to not address the situation in writing.

“Ok, now, like I said, there is 1,400 people in this organization,” Jessup said. “They make decisions, right? They make decisions every day. You think I’m aware of all of those decisions?”

“The decision that was made to reopen that station is not my decision,” he said.

Hearing officer, judge overturned by Jessup

Jessup reversed the recommendation of staff a second time in August 2018, when he allowed David Moore to obtain an automobile dealer’s license.

Moore operates a non-profit in Winston-Salem and Charlotte that trains ex-convicts how to do car repair and auto body work.

Records obtained by WBTV show Moore applied for a license in 2017 but was denied because of his previous criminal history.

Moore is a convicted felon, having been convicted of drug charges in 2002.

Records show Moore also received citations in 2012 and 2013 related to violating DMV regulations when he was previously a licensed car dealer.

A DMV hearing officer found that Moore’s criminal history disqualified him from getting a dealer’s license. That finding was upheld by a Forsyth County Superior Court judge, records provided by DMV show.

But that Moore’s efforts to get a dealer’s license changed when Democrat attorney and lobbyist Colon Willoughby met with Jessup and Moore in March 2018.

Internal emails obtained by WBTV show staff planned to deny Moore’s dealer application again in August 2018 and make him re-apply in order to get the special exception from Jessup.

But that plan was met with a strong rebuke from Jessup’s assistant.

“Absolutely not! Do not deny his dealer license. The commissioner has said to approve,” the assistant wrote in an email.

“We will not have Mr. Moore go through the process again,” the email continued. “The decision has been made.”

In his interview, Jessup defended his decision.

“It is appropriate because we, again, looked at the facts, consulted with legal counsel and determined that, within the law, that was appropriate.

Jessup pointed to a recent report issued by the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Inspector General.

But a review of the report found it misstated basic facts of the allegations reviewed, including a statement that said Moore re-applied for his license in August, which the internal emails obtained by WBTV explicitly said he would not do.

Jessup also pointed to a letter from a lawyer with the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office who is assigned to the DMV as evidence he confirmed he had the authority to reverse the decision of a hearing office and Superior Court judge.

But the letter was authored on November 28, 2018, days after WBTV first requested an interview for this story, and clarifies the letter is not a formal opinion from the Attorney General.

Moore initially returned a call to a reporter seeking comment on this story but, ultimately, did not return subsequent calls and never provided a statement.

His attorney, Colon Willoughby, provided an emailed statement the day the story fired aired, after ignoring multiple requests for comment over a period of several weeks.

Willoughby noted that his law firm handled the case pro bono. He also pointed out that a DMV inspector testified at the initial hearing in support of Moore’s application for a dealer’s license be approved.

“We believed then and now, that while there may have been a legal justification for his actions, the hearing officer did not exercise proper discretion. I asked the Commissioner to review the transcript and file and hear from Mr. Moore. He did and issued Mr. Moore a probationary license,” Willoughby said.

“Mr. Moore had paid his debt to society and had demonstrated his reformed character. He had letters of recommendation from law enforcement, the Mayor of Winston Salem and others attesting to his good works and character,” his statement continued. “I think the Commissioner exercised proper authority and judgement in granting the license.”

Street Rod? Or not?

In July 2018, Jessup wrote a letter to a Greensboro resident, granting him a one-time exception to the law governing whether his car could be branded as a ‘street rod.’

A street rod is a specific type of car defined by state law that must include an original body and frame of an antique car.

In this case, the car’s owner wanted his 1930 Ford to be branded a street rod.

But multiple sources within DMV who are familiar with the case told WBTV that a number of inspectors with DMV’s License & Theft Bureau determined the car did not meet the statutory definition of a street rod.

Instead, the inspectors said, the car should be branded as a replica.

State law outlines a process by which a person may title their vehicle and then appeal the decision to a committee of subject matter experts to determine whether the vehicle was properly branded.

But that didn’t happen in this case.

Instead, the car’s owner called his state representative who made an inquiry with DMV.

As a result, records show, Jessup issued a one-time exception that allowed the car to be branded a street rod.

“Please be advised that this branding is only for this one-time issuance,” Jessup wrote the car’s owner in July. “Should the vehicle be transferred, there are no assurances the Division of Motor Vehicles will make this branding transferrable with the title.”

Jessup said he decided to make an exception in this case because the car’s owner had received conflicting opinions from inspectors on whether the vehicle could be branded as a street rod, a statement WBTV could not corroborate.

But Jessup could not explain why he didn’t require a review panel to be assembled to review the case and make a final decision as the statute requires.

“Why not allow people—or require people—to go through the proper process to appeal decision before things reach your desk?” a reporter asked.

“People do,” Jessup responded.

“They didn’t in this case,” the reporter said.

“But people do,” Jessup said.

Junk car to roadworthy

Also this past July, Jessup allowed a vehicle purchased on the Internet that came from Alabama with a salvage title to be titled in North Carolina in a way that would allow it to be operated on the road.

The vehicle—a 2006 GMC Sierra—was purchased by Jimmy Johnson, who owns Deep Creek Timber Company in Wadesboro.

Johnson’s father, Richard Johnson, served as Chief Deputy of the Wake County Sheriff’s Office until recently.

Internal DMV records obtained by WBTV show the vehicle was first inspected by DMV inspectors in January 2018.

Initially, an internal agency memo shows, inspectors allowed the car to be licensed and titled in the state because they missed a notation on the Alabama title that said, “Parts Only Non-Rebuildable.”

But staff attempted to correct the oversight by sending Johnson a letter in March requesting the license plate for the vehicle be returned.

“I spoke with the Attorney General’s office and the recommendation is to continue with cancelation of the title based on the out of state title brand,” the internal memo written in June 2018 to Jessup said.

A month later, DMV sent a letter to Johnson saying the commissioner would allow him to title and license his vehicle in North Carolina, despite the opinion of inspectors and other staff.

“Per the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles this vehicle will be allowed to be titled and registered, with a ‘hold code’ placed on the registration to prevent re-sale,” a letter from DMV said. “This vehicle will not be retitled to another individual or business. The title shall be branded as ‘salvage.’”

There is no record that Johnson ever appealed his case to a hearing officer or followed any other proper procedure to attempt to challenge the initial decision to require his vehicle be titled as a salvage vehicle in North Carolina.

Jessup was not able to explain how the matter came to him for a decision.

“I don’t recall the process through which it got to my desk but it made it to my desk,” he said.

He also disputed statements from a reporter that inspectors found the vehicle should only be titled as salvage.

“If the License and Theft Bureau told you that, then that’s different from the facts that I reviewed,” Jessup said, contradicting the June 2018 memo written to his attention.

‘He’s got a lot of explaining to do’

Throughout the interview, Jessup continued to stand by each of his actions and disputed some of the internal documents and other information obtained by WBTV.

“You have a different set of facts, I have mine,” he said at one point in the interview.

Sen. Tom McInnis (R-Richmond) talks with WBTV.
Sen. Tom McInnis (R-Richmond) talks with WBTV. (Source: Corey Schmidt)

But North Carolina Senator Tom McInnis (R-Richmond), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and sits on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee for Transportation, said he was troubled by the documents WBTV had obtained.

“Very troubling that the people of North Carolina have someone in the position of Commissioner who is not upholding his public trust,” McInnis said after reviewing the documents.

“Very troubling that people are getting special consideration which appear to be outside the law,” he continued.

McInnis said the evidence obtained by the station was “cut and dry” and warrants further scrutiny from lawmakers.

“I think he’s got a lot of explaining to do to the people of North Carolina,” McInnis said.

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